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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
18/11/2016
Conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto

KITSON, Mr Kevin, First Assistant Commissioner, Australian Electoral Commission

NEILSON, Ms Marie, Australian Electoral Officer and State Manager for Western Australia, Australian Electoral Commission

Committee met at 09:16

CHAIR ( Senator Reynolds ): Good morning, everybody, and welcome to God's own country, to my colleagues—Perth, in Western Australia. I declare open the public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Today's hearing is part of a series of public hearings being held around the country to hear evidence regarding this year's federal election. The committee has sought to get as wide a range of views as possible, including from the parties, academics, political activist groups and disability representatives, in order to complement the views of the Australian Electoral Commission and other official bodies. We will also be discussing some issues around technology.

In accordance with the committee's resolution of 21 September 2016, this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website and the proof and official transcripts of proceedings will be published on the parliamentary website. Those present here today are advised that filming and recording are permitted during the hearing. I also remind members of the media who may be listening on the web of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of this committee.

I now very warmly welcome the representatives of the Australian Electoral Commission to give evidence here today. Although the committee does not require either of you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions and discussion with the committee members.

Ms Neilson : Thank you for the opportunity to make an opening statement. Noting the Electoral Commissioner's fairly comprehensive address last week in Canberra, my address looks at the state perspective only. One point five seven eight million people were enrolled at the close of rolls in Western Australia for the 2 July election, which was an increase of over 126,000 electors from the 2013 and represents an estimated enrolment rate of 92.2 per cent of the eligible voting population. Fewer candidates overall nominated for this election compared to 2013, with 86 candidates nominating for the 16 available House vacancies and 79 candidates nominating for the 12 available Senate vacancies. To deliver the election across the 16 divisions in Western Australia, 672 polling places and 35 interstate voting centres were open on election day. Forty five early voting centres were established in the weeks leading up to election day and 84 mobile polling teams visited more than 300 establishments across the state in the two-week period up to and including election day. More than 9½ thousand staff were recruited to assist with the election, with some 7,300 staff employed in polling places on election day itself.

The turnout for the election, based on House votes counted, was 88.38 per cent. Overall informality across the state was 3.99 per cent for the House, which was an improvement of 1.4 per cent on the last election's result, and 3.35 per cent for the Senate, which increased half a per cent over 2013. Early in-person and postal votes represented 23.05 per cent of all votes counted, which was an increase over 2013, which had 19.5 per cent early votes. Ordinary prepoll votes counted increased by 41 per cent from 102,000 in 2013 to 145,000 at this year's election.

The largest number of votes counted for a single polling venue was 15,202 votes cast at the Greenfields early voting centre in the division of Canning, and the smallest number counted was 50 votes each at the Wiluna and Yalgoo polling places, which are both in the division of Durack. The election delivery period followed a major redistribution of electoral boundaries after Western Australia gained an additional seat in the House of Representatives to bring us to 16 seats, and 261,108 electors—nearly one in five Western Australian electors—were moved into a new electoral division. This created a challenge for us in accurately predicting voter turnout, particularly the number of absent votes cast at polling places near the new boundaries, and was almost certainly a contributing factor to the queues that we experienced on polling day.

The election also saw, for the first time, a cooperative arrangement between the AEC's Northern Territory and Western Australia offices and the Department of Human Services to deliver remote mobile polling services across Northern Australia, which built on a similar arrangement that was in place for the Northern Territory in 2013. While this has proved to be a very good service delivery model for the future, there were some lessons to be learned, primarily related to properly communicating the visit schedule to both the communities and to candidates and scrutineers. We have commenced work already to improve this service at the next event.

Another unique feature of election delivery in Western Australia is the need to accommodate the voting requirements of the fly-in fly-out workforce. We again provided services at Perth Airport during the last two weeks of polling specifically to cater for the FIFO workforce, and collected 12,051 declaration votes. We visited five mine sites with remote mobile polling runs, and FIFO workers were also able to vote at other early voting centres across WA and by post.

Newly legislated Senate voting requirements were in place for the election. 94.5 per cent of votes were cast above the line compared to 96.2 per cent last election, and 5.5 per cent were cast below the line compared to 3.8 per cent in 2013. Postelection scrutinies proceeded to schedule, and all House polls were declared by 3 August. The Senate writ was returned to the Governor of Western Australia one day earlier on 2 August.

In closing, I want to put on record here the amount of effort that my small permanent workforce in particular has put into preparing for and delivering the election across Western Australia in what has been an extraordinary and often quite challenging environment for us over the past three years. I want to put my thanks on the public record, and I also want to say that I am really proud to be associated with all of the staff who work for me and how they have stepped up to deliver this election result, one that has been accepted as a true reflection of the collective vote across Western Australia. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that very comprehensive snapshot of the task that you and your staff successfully delivered at the last election. First of all—I know I speak on behalf of all the committee here—could you pass on our thanks and congratulations to your entire team for the job they did in successfully delivering the election here in Western Australia.

Ms Neilson : Thank you, Chair.

Mr GILES: The chair does speak on behalf of the entire committee. I will put on the record my thanks and appreciation for the work of your staff, permanent and temporary. I also thank you for your opening remarks, which have been very helpful for me. There are just a few matters I would not mind exploring in a little more detail. When we were in an earlier hearing we heard some evidence about voting centres at airports and the fact that the commission in other states discontinued opening early voting in Melbourne Airport in particular due to some security issues. I am just wondering if you could explain how those issues were addressed in WA, noting that of course there might be some different patterns in the voting in Perth compared to some of the other states.

Ms Neilson : We have the same security issues as were experienced in the other states, but we had a different challenge in that a particular feature of the Western Australian workforce is the high number of fly-in, fly-out workers. Prepoll voting was undertaken in Perth Airport in five locations: the charter terminals of Cobham and Skippers and terminals T1, T2 and T3. This coverage was comprehensive enough to cover the other two terminals, being the Network terminal and T4, which is the Qantas terminal. Both of those are either in the same building or have sufficiently close proximity for another polling location.

Polling hours were set to be in line with flight schedules. We worked with the airport corporation and FIFO groups to understand what the flight schedules were, and they were set to be in line with when the FIFO workers were at the airport and leaving for their workplaces. Hours of polling at all terminals were conducted over a two-week period of weekdays only and did not include polling day. Polling hours were split, with a separate morning and afternoon shift at Cobham, Skippers and T1, but it was a full-day shift at T2 and T3.

Security issues and space limitations required us to move all polling materials out of the airport each night and put them back into AEC premises. The staff arrived very early in the morning each morning to pick them up again and take them back out to the airport. So there was a fair amount of cooperation between us and the airport corporation in order to get around those security issues. We could not store materials there but we had to do polling there because we have such a big FIFO workforce. We just had to manage that.

Mr GILES: As I understood the evidence we received earlier, there were three issues which led to the discontinuance of airport voting otherwise. One was a suggestion that the data indicated that people were not particularly voting at airports by reason of necessity; they tended to be voters within the division or close to it. Secondly, the issues of security. Thirdly, issues of occupational health and safety of the workers with regard to the duration the booths had to be open. I understand your evidence is that the commission in WA managed to find a satisfactory solution to those latter two problems—the security question and managing the workload.

Ms Neilson : I will stress that it was of necessity. We did not open on polling day because the statistics here were the same as statistics in other places—they were not fly in, fly out workers; they were workers from the airport itself. So we did specifically put the times in to match fly in, fly out timetables.

Mr GILES: There are just a couple of other matters I will explore. One goes to the issue of the location of early voting centres. Some concerns have been expressed to me in terms of the location of the centres per se in terms of their accessibility and, in one case Mr Morton may be aware of, proximity to campaign headquarters of a major political party. Also, more broadly, the issue of candidates' and volunteers' capacity to campaign in some early voting centres being restricted. I appreciate that you operate under some constraints, but some comments about the process you went through and how these issues may be overcome in future would be appreciated.

Ms Neilson : We had 45 early voting centres across the state for the 2016 election up to polling day. What we look for in an early voting centre is, first of all, access for voters—is it a polling facility that voters can access and also that has suitable structure for polling? One of the things we do look for is capacity for parties and candidates to canvas for votes outside. That is not always possible, but it is our preference if we can find those facilities. If we cannot allow canvassing outside because of the premises' owner then we provide facilities inside with a table for people to put their how-to-vote materials.

We have, in some meetings with the parties post election, had some discussions around the location of some of our early voting centres, and we have undertaken at future elections—and this process has already started—to have some consultation with the parties themselves about where we site our early voting centres. I have written to each of the major parties already saying, 'This is the general area that we are looking in.'

It is not always easy to find voting centres that are big enough to take the number of votes that we take at early voting centres. I am sure you have heard this evidence before today. But, if there is a suitable polling venue that allows access for party workers, we prefer that venue over one that does not.

Mr GILES: Thank you very much. Just two other matters: firstly, the progress of the Cowan count, as the closest one in WA. Could you take us through the capacity you had to direct resources to this count after polling day and any logistical challenges that were presented in the course of conducting and completing this count.

Ms Neilson : Prior to polling day, the office manager at the Cowan office had already identified this as potentially one of the closest seats in Western Australia and had already made arrangements to prioritise that particular count, so we got through a lot of the preliminary scrutiny and we had declaration votes a lot faster with Cowan than with the other two divisions in that working unit. We also had twice as many staff planned and in place for the scrutiny period afterwards than the other two divisions. It is a three-division working unit.

We started off with that model, but it became fairly clear fairly soon afterwards that we were not moving quickly enough to meet people's expectations, so we diverted resources to Cowan towards the end of that first week. But, yes, we saw it coming. We knew, based on the numbers that we were seeing, that it was probably going to be one of the closer ones across the state. We allocated additional resources, but it turned out it probably was not enough early on in the week.

Mr GILES: Thanks very much. I have one for you, Mr Kitson. I do not know whether this evidence may have been presented. We asked similar questions about Hindmarsh yesterday, I think it was, in South Australia. Could you perhaps provide us with some details about whether, in other counts which were identified before the event as being close counts, there were such steps as Ms Neilson has referred to—about managing declaration votes et cetera. I do not think we got that evidence in respect of Hindmarsh, but I may be wrong.

CHAIR: I am sure Senator Macdonald would like to know about this in relation to Herbert.

Mr Kitson : Yes, we can do that. I can comment that, in the days following the election day, and as the count progresses and when it becomes apparent that seats are closer perhaps than projected, or maybe the projections are tracking as thought, we will move such resources as we can. I might note that in one particular case I received a call from a sitting member who was standing for re-election who complained that we had moved resources from that particular seat, so we do have some finite resource challenges. But I am happy to take that question on notice, although it will largely be an anecdotal response, because I do not think we will necessarily have hard facts.

Mr GILES: No, no. I guess I was just struck by a couple of comments at a practical level that Ms Neilson made. I do not think we got them out in evidence in respect of Hindmarsh, and I just thought that would be useful in terms of managing these. Certainly, at least one sitting member is always very happy if you are not paying much attention to the count in his seat!

The last matter—and this may well be a question on notice, because we will be coming back to look at this issue—is that I would be interested in having a conversation about the management of remote voting. I know that there has been some commentary about notice and timing of those arrangements. It may be, Chair, that this is a matter that we can just put on the table and come back to, but I did not want to end this conversation without having raised it with Ms Neilson.

CHAIR: That is a very good point. Ms Neilson did foreshadow several issues that happened. We have had a request to go up to Broome next year. We are going, regionally, on a date yet to be determined early next year, so I think we will go to Broome most likely, and then we can unpack these issues in a bit more detail.

Mr GILES: I would be happy to do that. You do not have to spend hours going through it now, Ms Neilson. Thank you very much for answering my questions.

Mr MORTON: Ms Neilson, it is strange, given my previous roles and where I have interacted with you and your team, to be sitting on this side of the table. I might just start off by acknowledging the great work that you and your team have done in Western Australia. I first arrived in Western Australia in 2008 and over that time I have had the pleasure of interacting with the AEC staff in this state. They are extremely professional in the way they go about their duties. How many staff, full-time and temporary, would have been engaged by the AEC in total during the course of the federal election campaign?

Ms Neilson : We have an ongoing staffing base of 51 staff. At polling places this election we had, as I said at the start, over 9,500 positions in all and just over 7,300 of those positions on the polling day itself.

Mr MORTON: There are some questions I have asked your counterparts in other states. I will not repeat them now, because I have got a good flavour of some of the answers in relation to how many of them would be supervisors. But if you could come back on notice to let me know how many of those staff would be considered a supervisor or manager, if I were thinking about this issue as the context of the most junior staff member.

Ms Neilson : We had a number of officers in charge, second in charge and senior people wandering around supervising the polling places of just over 1,500.

Mr MORTON: You are probably familiar with the 'Acknowledgement and declaration of key obligations upon employment' form. In it there is a particular line:

… where there may be a perception that I am involved in political activities, I will discuss the matter with my manager/supervisor immediately.

What does political activities mean to you? How can someone be perceived to be involved in political activities, as far as you understand it?

Ms Neilson : To me it is anything that calls into question our impartiality. To me, it is a fairly black and white test. If there is any suggestion that something we are doing does not make us impartial, then I define that as political activity.

Mr MORTON: What are some examples of that?

Ms Neilson : I will give an actual example from the Canning by-election. A staff member was going to lunch and made a throwaway comment on the way out the door that could have been interpreted as political activity. I am fairly confident it was just an innocent statement, but we had to ask that person to not work for us anymore.

Mr MORTON: So they gave a perception that they may have been involved in political activities. The giving of that perception triggered the action that you took?

Ms Neilson : Yes.

Mr MORTON: One of the things that I am finding is that there is a broad understanding I suppose of what the policy in relation to political neutrality means. Could someone be very active politically in the months leading up to an election, and then sign this form declaring they are not currently politically active, they do not intend to publically engage in political activities during their employment with the AEC, fulfil their role with the AEC, suspend their political activism and then restart it afterwards?

Ms Neilson : I am not aware that we have employed anyone in that kind of a category, because I think that it starts to get towards the line of perception and it starts to damage our capacity to be seen to be impartial.

Mr MORTON: Should I be able to identify some AEC staff and then be able to identify their political persuasion through their postings online? Would that cross over in relation to this issue, in your view?

Ms Neilson : In my view, yes.

Mr MORTON: If someone were actively lobbying MPs or candidates on public policy issues leading up to the election but not necessarily involved in the operations of a political party, would you think that they should have disclosed that to you before being employed in this state?

Ms Neilson : I think that 'It depends' would be my answer.

Mr MORTON: In relation to the early voting centre, I am probably not going to go down the particular examples that Mr Giles was suggesting, but I know some people get concerned from a political party perspective where parties or candidates want to be able to have their volunteers hand out how-to-vote cards at early voting centres. I think parties see that as an important part of the democratic process. I would probably suggest that, if it were not for the handing out of how-to-vote cards, in some booths interstate the picking up of the fact that the wrong ballot papers were being issued might not have occurred as early. But concerns have been raised with me that with some early voting centres—not in the electorate I was involved in but in others—the AEC office, or centre management or building management, did not allow any party volunteers to be anywhere near the early voting centre in order to hand out how-to-vote cards. Do you take the ability of parties to hand out how-to-vote cards into consideration when choosing early voting centres?

Ms Neilson : Yes, absolutely, and one of the first questions we ask the premises' owner is whether we can allow it. Our policy is pretty much to allow party political activities where we possibly can, because you are right: it is an incredibly important part of the political process. Where the owners do not allow us to have party workers outside, we try to negotiate and agree a compromise. If we cannot, we will let the candidates and parties know and put a table inside where they can put their how-to-vote materials, at least.

CHAIR: On that—I am happy for you to take this on notice—can you come back to the committee about what happened at the Midland prepoll centre, because I know from my own experience that the shopping centre did not allow it, and at least one of the parties had to rent premises so that they could hand out how-to-vote cards. So could you take that particular booth on notice. It would be interesting to see what happened there. We do not need to look at it today.

Mr MORTON: I might add Belmont. The Belmont one was the one that was brought to my attention.

CHAIR: So could you take those two on notice and come back separately on that.

Ms Neilson : What are we looking for? Just what was the party political activity?

CHAIR: Yes, what the arrangement was for those two centres with the owners in terms of access by political parties. I am certain that for both of those you will have a series of contact with political parties on that, because at least our party had to rent premises there to hand out how-to-vote cards.

Ms Neilson : I can say that neither of those allowed party political activity outside.

CHAIR: So for those two, and any others you are aware of, can you just unpack the circumstances a bit further for us, where you know there were issues. I think it would be quite instructive for us just to get a sense of some of the challenges you face as well.

Ms Neilson : Yes. We did send candidate advice out to all candidates. One of my Senate candidate advices was definitely along those lines of where our prepoll voting centres were, what the arrangements for party workers were and, where you could not, that you would have a table to put your how-to-vote cards on. We will just pull that table out for you.

CHAIR: Yes, if you could do that, it would be helpful. We could probably sit and talk for half an hour about some of the challenges that you and your staff face in this area. But, if you could just unpack that for us a bit, that would be great.

Mr MORTON: Thank you, Ms Neilson. I am impressed by your answer, because I am surprised to learn that the AEC take into account the desire for party workers to be able to hand out their how-to-vote material. I am very pleased that you make efforts to ensure that that can happen. I suppose my line of inquiry is to confirm what I have learnt and to work out what the backup options are on those occasions when it cannot be done. If this is a bigger issue, should we be expecting that the AEC will formalise this more and that, in the event that party workers are not able to hand out material outside the early voting centre, the early voting centre will be made bigger and space within the area leased by the AEC and available for the purposes of that practice?

In relation to the Senate count, you may have read a submission from Gemma Whiting, who is known to both you and me—a very enthusiastic person. I noticed that in her submission she commended the AEC and Fuji Xerox staff and also commended the DRO in charge at the WA CSS for his professionalism. I wanted to put that on the record. I think that there is a lot that we can learn from the process of the Senate count. The part that I saw, when I was a scrutineer there, was extremely professional.

Obviously, one of the issues we are looking at is the role of the scrutineer that we would normally have in a paper count and how we can keep the principles of what the scrutineer is there for and translate that to the way the Senate is counted. Have we actually moved away, through the use of that technology, from some of the things that we actually have scrutineers for, because they are now not able to be conducted? Can you just give some feedback in relation to your understanding of the operations of that centre?

Ms Neilson : Yes. Gemma was one of our two senior scrutineers, and she spent a lot of time at the outpost centre and a lot of time talking with us about those various issues. I think that is probably a flavour that has come out in a lot of the submissions—that it was transparent but not transparent enough. So that is something that we are looking at in the postevent reviews now.

Some of the things that we did to try to improve that transparency were that the data entry people were going very quickly, so, after Gemma and some of the other scrutineers talked to us about it, for data entry, 'Instead of key, key, key, enter,' we said, 'key, key, key, pause, enter, and give the scrutineers a chance to challenge ballot papers.' I think some of those things can be put in for the future to try to make it more transparent. But that is a whole postelection review activity that is happening now.

Mr MORTON: I am glad that review is occurring, because I think that is something that this committee is particularly interested in having a look at as well. When the Senate ballot papers are counted, I was reading, they come through on the screens fairly randomised, so they are not coming through in batches for a booth.

Ms Neilson : That is correct.

Mr MORTON: I suppose the role of scrutineers in the past was that they could compare what they knew to be the election night results for that booth; they could see it being counted; they could look over shoulders; they could then see what the new result was and where the changes were made and then move on. That ability to see that has gone completely under this new system; is that right?

Ms Neilson : I think it is a feature of the new legislation that the scrutiny does not actually happen until the ballot papers get to the central Senate scrutiny centre. Before that, it is an indicative count to try to give some information to candidates about where they are likely to be standing. The election night counts were really quite accurate in terms of how many quotas each group had, and that turned out to be pretty much what the eventual election result was, but that is not anymore part of the scrutiny. The scrutiny all happens at the CSS. So I think it is a bit tricky to get those results.

Mr MORTON: But it does not come through CSS, clearly: 'We're dealing with the Applecross Primary School booth now.' There is nothing that goes on the screen to say, 'This is the one that's in front of us.' It is all over the computers. They are done, certified and packaged off in the same way that in the paper system you would actually reseal the boxes and deal with that booth. It all comes through randomised.

Ms Neilson : Yes, it is a very different system.

Mr MORTON: Yes. I think that is the issue that has come through in relation to some of the more computer science academic people on how you keep an eye on it. Sure, you can see that the ballot paper is there and the numbers have been inputted correctly, but where does it go and what does it mean afterwards, and how is it added to the count? On the issue of scrutineers at the centre, Ms Whiting raises some concerns that there was one scrutineer allocated for each AEC staff member, but that did not include the contracted Fuji Xerox staff members. Is that right, and how did that work?

Ms Neilson : That is correct. That is the advice that we got—that an AEC staff member was an officer involved in the count in terms of the Electoral Act; therefore, a scrutineer could be appointed. Our advice was that the contractors from Fuji Xerox were not technically, under the act, officers engaged in the count; they were—

Mr MORTON: So you could have 30 screens operating but still only have six scrutineers there?

Ms Neilson : Six scrutineers per candidate.

Mr MORTON: Yes, per candidate. I presume that the way parties dealt with that was to make sure that they had six for their first candidate and six for their second candidate, and they were able to get close to the 30 if they wanted to.

Ms Neilson : Yes. We pulled out some stats. We had 170 separate scrutineer appointments, and I understand that we had the most scrutineers of any CSS across the country. Eighty-four of those were appointed from Liberal Party candidates; 48 from the Greens; 26 from Pauline Hanson's One Nation; and 12 from the Australian Labor Party. So the numbers were there for that scrutiny, but, yes, I can understand your point.

Mr MORTON: No, that is fine. And there was the issue of the Victorian Senate ballot papers that were issued—and I think Ms Whiting talks about New South Wales and South Australian Senate ballot papers coming through the system. I think that they were only picked up at the point of them flashing through on the screens. They would have been dealt with as informal and become informal votes. If the scrutineers had not seen them on those screens, would we know that they had been misallocated?

Ms Neilson : They show on the web as informal ballot papers.

Mr MORTON: Yes. But we would not know why they are informal?

Ms Neilson : Not necessarily, no.

Mr MORTON: This is a question that Mr Kitson has taken on notice, just for me to find out how many ballot papers are informal because of the incorrect issuing of the ballot paper. I know that that does not necessarily mean an AEC staff error. In the house, there is a significant reason because of roll look-up for absentees why that occurs. How did the mobile polling, I think in Pearce, come to—there was no discovery at all during that process that they had issued incorrect ballot papers?

Ms Neilson : Yes. Unfortunately, one Senate ballot paper when it is folded up tends to look very much like the rest. It is easy for us within the commission—we know to look for the name of the state. We know that they all look the same, because we have a bit more experience, but it is not necessarily something that a polling official will know to look for intrinsically. They were supplied with some Victorian Senate ballot papers. It was a mistake at our central warehouse, for want of a better word, and they assumed that they were the right ballot papers to be handing out to electors. It was noticed when an elector queried why—she said it did not match their how-to-vote cards.

Mr MORTON: That is interesting. I did not realise that you were aware of that issue. I thought that the voters at the early-voting centre had all voted using Victorian papers and it was only picked up in the count. It was actually picked up on the day when a voter—and I liked the reason—had their how-to-vote card in front of them that explained the difference to them. And there were other ones—South Australian and New South Wales Senate ballot papers—that came through?

Ms Neilson : Yes. I do not have those details, but I understand there were some others that were incorrectly allocated.

CHAIR: Can I just ask you if you can then take that on notice, because this is something that we have found everywhere we have been. There have been procedural errors either in the warehouse or at the issuing point, which is something that we have to look to remediate. Some of it, as you have said, is possibly procedures at various different points. So can you take on notice to provide further information about all known incorrect ballot papers for the House of Representatives. Are you aware of any House of Representatives incidents happening, or was it all in the Senate?

Ms Neilson : I am aware that there are House of Representatives issues, yes.

CHAIR: When you say 'issues', how many separate incidents are you aware of?

Ms Neilson : Not anywhere near the scale of that one—in isolated instances where they were being found quite early in the morning.

CHAIR: So they were found. If you do not have the details here, how many separate incidents are you aware of for the House of Representatives of incorrect ballot papers being issued?

Ms Neilson : Can I take that on notice?

CHAIR: You can. Could you just provide a breakdown—and, again, this is not to have a 'hallelujah, gotcha' moment, but it really does indicate, given that it is not just one state, that there are, as I said, clearly some systemic issues internally within the AEC in terms of how ballot papers are held, counted and issued.

Mr MORTON: I think there are two issues there, Chair, in that we know that a lot of House of Representatives ballot papers are issued incorrectly to absentee voters because of confusion about where they are actually enrolled. I think the examples we are asking for on notice are ones where there were five or 10 ballot papers issued incorrectly at a particular booth because of a bundling up or allocation of ballot papers, and then it was realised and then that was stopped. Is that fair, Chair?

CHAIR: Yes, it is. While we have had discussions elsewhere about the margin of error, in terms of Australian voters we have to strive. I know that closing the final gap can be difficult. And we work from the principle, as you do, that every Australian voter who goes in and casts a ballot needs to know that they have the right ballot paper and it is going to be treated as formal if they mark it correctly. So we are particularly interested in any investigation—because presumably you have done inquiries into how each of these incidents occurred. If you can give us more detail about how and at what point it occurred, I think we would be very grateful. As I said, we will be having a look at that in more detail.

Ms Neilson : Yes.

Mr MORTON: One other issue: obviously, the issues related to the Senate by-election—obviously with the packing process, carriage and movement of votes—you and your staff have seen how it was before, you have seen the consequence of what happened with that and you have seen the process now being rolled out. In counting centres there are much more lines on the floor, more signs on want to do and where to go and making sure no rubbish is removed. It is a little bit like New Orleans towards the end of the counting section in relation to all the rubbish piling up in the corner. What is your advice to this committee in relation to how the ballot paper handling procedures have improved?

Ms Neilson : I am confident that we knew where all our ballot papers were at any point in time. I think that was the intention, and that is where we failed in 2013.

CHAIR: Just on that—and I was going to ask later, but, given that there is probably no-one with a more acute interest in this particular issue than myself—how have you gone in terms of implementing the recommendations of the Keelty report? Obviously—there is no sugar-coating it—it was not a flattering report. How have you gone in implementing those reforms here?

Ms Neilson : It has been an interesting and challenging couple of years. We have had the benefit of—if I want to use that word—the 2014 re-run to test these procedures and to test the implementation of the Keelty recommendations. We then had the Canning by-election to further embed those principles. I have no doubt my staff understand the ballot paper principles and the need for integrity at every point in the process. I think we have implemented those recommendations as well as anybody else in the country.

Mr MORTON: There has been a significant physical improvement in the materials that you use in order to transport ballot papers, hasn't there?

Ms Neilson : Yes.

CHAIR: I know that there has been significant process. What we will do is, Mr Kitson through Mr Rogers, seek a separate update on the implementation nationally of the recommendations and the learnings from that experience. But, again, in my own experience incidents like—I have no doubt that you have much better procedures now—when we have the incorrect issuing of ballot papers that goes unnoticed by the AEC staff until it is found at the end, in terms of the ability to reconcile the ones that you have for different states and different seats, one of my staff members had an experience when I was working out in the eastern suburbs. We actually put an official notification into the AEC about this. One of the mobile teams turned up to one of the aged-care facilities and had separate numbers of Reps and Senate ballot papers. So the immediate thought was: how do you turn up to a mobile booth without the same amount of ballot papers? As you will see in the report, it caused a snowball effect of incidents. In terms of procedures, as I understand it, they were still able to continue to vote for the House of Reps. Then they suspended and brought some more Senate papers in, but they did not actually distribute them, as I understand it, to all of the individuals. Some of the staff were given the ballot papers to complete and put in. While it is only a small example, when you experience that it does not do much for confidence—maybe unfairly—in the ability of the local AEC to manage and oversight the ballot papers if things like these are occurring. I am just wondering if you have any thoughts on that.

Ms Neilson : I have to confess to not being aware of the particular incident you are talking about.

CHAIR: It was reported through at the time and we did provide formal information through.

Ms Neilson : All right. I will follow that up. It does not surprise me that there were fewer Senate ballot papers allocated to a polling place than House of Reps ballot papers, because there is less redundancy in the Senate vote, because it is a state-wide vote, than there is in the House of Reps, where we have to allocate enough ballot papers for other divisions to cater for absentee voters. So that does not surprise me one little bit.

CHAIR: In this case there were not even enough for the residents of this one facility.

Ms Neilson : It concerns me that there were not enough to start with, but it does not surprise me at all that there were fewer in total. We estimate the number of voters and add a little bit of redundancy into that and we allocate more ballot papers than the estimated voters. But it is not an exact science and it is sometimes hard to work out where—

CHAIR: Particularly on school holidays.

Ms Neilson : Yes, there is a whole heap of reasons as to why.

Mr DICK: Sorry to rehash this issue about the prepoll locations. I know that leasing probably looks after finding the locations for prepoll centres. When you actually look at a location that is a prepoll centre or a potential prepoll centre it obviously has to fit a number of criteria. It has to be accessible to the division and it has to have disability access and all those things. Do you ask the management, 'Will you allow workers to be out he front'? Or do you source the location and then look at that as an issue down the track?

Ms Neilson : It is part of the process of sourcing the location. Each of our divisional sites is responsible for finding prepoll voting centre locations. The centre has to be suitable for polling, so it has to have electoral services and preferably good access—

Mr DICK: I am specifically asking whether you can hand out how to vote cards out the front. Is that one of the questions you ask?

Ms Neilson : Yes.

Mr DICK: And if they come back and say that they are not going to allow that do you source other locations?

Ms Neilson : If we can find another location, yes.

Mr DICK: And if you cannot, you go with that one?

Ms Neilson : Yes.

Mr DICK: So alternatives are sought once that no is put into place?

Ms Neilson : We have a policy of it being suitable for polling and allowing access for campaigning. If it does not allow access our procedures require our staff to try to negotiate that in. If they cannot do that and it is the only venue that is available that is suitable for polling then we will go with it and we will provide a table for you to put your how to vote material—

Mr DICK: And that was the case in the two divisions in Western Australia that we discussed this morning?

Ms Neilson : Probably more than half of them did not allow—

Mr DICK: More than half of them in Western Australia did not allow how to vote cards to be handed out?

Ms Neilson : I will get those numbers for you.

Mr DICK: Thank you. That seems very high.

CHAIR: It does.

Mr DICK: On staffing issues, you indicated that there were approximately 9,500 people working on election day. Was that up or down from 2013?

Ms Neilson : 9,500 overall and about 7,500 who worked on election day itself. That was an increase—6,600 positions in 2013 and 7,400 in 2016.

Mr DICK: I am just after the whole day.

Ms Neilson : Polling day positions?

Mr DICK: Yes. So it was 6,600 up to 9,500.

Ms Neilson : No, up to 7,300 on polling day.

Mr DICK: It was 9,500 for 2016. What is the equivalent number for 2013?

Ms Neilson : It was 7,949.

Mr DICK: About 1,600 extra people.

Ms Neilson : We put in additional supervisors and we put in ballot box guards.

Mr DICK: Obviously that is as a result of some of the earlier WA Senate issues.

Ms Neilson : Yes.

Mr DICK: In terms of the polling places, what is the comparison between 2013 and 2016?

Ms Neilson: In 2013 we had 763 polling places. In 2016 we had 672. I will point out that 28 of that difference is simply because we abolished two super-booths, at Rottnest Island and in Perth CBD, that were technically 28 polling places and they reduced down to two—so, technically, 30.

Mr DICK: I do not understand that.

Ms Neilson: We had super-booths that housed ordinary voting for every single division across Western Australia. We stopped that and had them just allocating ordinary votes for the division of Fremantle, on Rottnest Island, and then they took absent votes for the others. So that immediately dropped the number of polling places down by 14. It was the same with Perth CBD.

Mr DICK: Of the roughly 100 that have dropped, I want to focus on some of the remote voting that Mr Giles also mentioned. It is a particular issue regarding the division of Durack. I know that there was the media commentary about shutting down the Roebourne booth in the Pilbara, where the nearest polling booth was 12 kilometres away. You gave some comments to the media that the communication did not go out. A second visit was organised. In terms of shutting down polling booths, particularly those remote locations—and I am still a bit sketchy about this audit that happened across Australia—are you consulted about which booths are going to be shut down, or is that a national decision made by the AEC? I am just unclear on that process. What is the chain of command?

Ms Neilson: It is a bit of both. There were some statistics applied to which polling places would be identified for possible abolition and 110 polling places came up in Western Australia in that process. It was based on the number of votes taken, the demographics of the particular area and whether there were alternatives for electors to cast their votes somewhere else. There were very remote, regional and inner city—I cannot remember the term for it. So there were different sets of numbers and if a polling place fell under that threshold it was earmarked for review and possible abolition, but not definite abolition. Those statistics came from national office, because they have—

Mr DICK: Yes—that data.

Ms Neilson: That came to us and we looked at the 110 and then decided whether there were viable alternatives available for the electors in that area and whether we would recommend them for abolition. Then there was a process of consultation with local House of Reps members to say, 'This is what we are thinking of doing. Here are the alternatives. We would like you to—'

Mr DICK: Who makes the final decision to close them?

Ms Neilson: I do that—it is an AEO delegation.

Mr DICK: On the mobile booths, I think you indicated that there were 84 visiting 300 establishments.

Ms Neilson: I don't think I said 84. There were eight remote mobile teams—84 all up.

Mr DICK: In terms of remote Indigenous communities, that 84 went to 300 establishments, I think you said.

Ms Neilson: That is right across the state. So that is hospitals—

Mr DICK: Retirement villages and those places.

Ms Neilson: Yes.

Mr DICK: In terms of the remote Indigenous voting booths, how many mobile booths are operated?

Ms Neilson: We had eight teams visiting about 100 separate locations in remote areas across, primarily, northern Western Australia but also out of Kalgoorlie as well—

Mr DICK: Eight teams visiting 100 locations. And they spent a day?

Ms Neilson: Depending on the size of the community. In some places the scheduling was for a whole day and in some places it was an hour or two and then move on—

Mr DICK: To the next location. How does that compare to 2013? Is it about the same?

Ms Neilson: In 2013 we had eight remote teams, as well.

Mr DICK: The same 100?

Ms Neilson: It would be about the same.

Mr DICK: I am just trying to work out how many polling booths were closed in the division of Durack? I am just trying to work out that if we closed polling places did we increase the remote visiting booths?

Ms Neilson: Sometimes we did. Roebourne, as you said, was one of the examples where we closed the polling place, which, from memory, was taking just under 200 votes, and we put in instead a remote mobile polling team. The failure there was we did not communicate it well enough and the community did not know we were coming on that Monday.

Mr DICK: Yes, that is obviously a big problem. How many booths were shut down in Durack?

Ms Neilson : Of the 110 polling places that we reviewed, 44 were eventually abolished. We earmarked 50 for abolition—

Mr DICK: In Durack?

Ms Neilson : We identified 20 in Durack.

Mr DICK: Were they closed?

Ms Neilson : Eight were closed.

Mr DICK: So in the division of Durack eight polling places closed. Was there a corresponding increase then in visiting mobile booths in the division of Durack?

Ms Neilson : In some cases, yes.

Mr DICK: Do you know how many we increased it by?

Ms Neilson : Not offhand.

Mr DICK: Would you be able to find that out for me?

Ms Neilson : Yes.

Mr DICK: That would be terrific. The report of the issues at the Carnarvon Civic Centre said that a voter from Murray and another voter from Queensland turned up and one had the House of Reps ballot and the other only had the Senate ballot. They were told by AEC officials to just fill in their Senate vote or to just fill in their House of Reps vote and that it would count. Is that the advice that polling officials gave voters?

Ms Neilson : It is not advice that we ask our polling officials to give voters.

Mr DICK: No. I am just asking whether that was the advice given to the voters.

Ms Neilson : It was. There were two particular circumstances. One was that people came to vote quite early on in the process and we did not have interstate Senate ballot papers for Queensland. It was on the first day of polling. One of our challenges is getting ballot papers to very remote areas in time for voting to start. We had some problems in 2013 and 2014, so this time we decided to open voting later. It did not open until the Monday two weeks out from polling day. There were a series of events, including massive storms on the east coast that slowed the planes down—

Mr DICK: Sure. I am not worried about the excuses or the reasons when it comes to millions of ballot papers; I am just talking about the advice. For example, in that case—I am unaware of any other examples; that was one that was reported in the media, but there may have been other cases—do you take those people aside when it is found out or all the officials aside at the end and do a bit of a debrief? Are there any exit surveys of staff saying, 'Tell us your stories about what happened,' or does the officer in charge of that polling booth do a report? Do you get that information? What is that process?

Ms Neilson : We do not wait until the end. When we know about those kinds of issues we sort them out on the ground. That was very quickly sorted out with the officer in charge. We cannot wait until the end because there will be a whole heap of other voters coming in and officials will need to know how to properly issue ballot papers. The divisional returning officer photocopied thousands of Senate ballot papers to get to remote areas when we were having difficulty getting enough to those places.

Mr DICK: Tell me about that. When you photocopy a ballot paper, what are the security measures involved? Are they photocopied at an AEC office or a print store?

Ms Neilson : It is normally at an AEC office.

Mr DICK: Are they then hand numbered? What is the security?

Ms Neilson : They are accounted for as photocopies.

Mr DICK: Does that carry a seal on a stamp or a watermark? I cannot remember what the AEC ballot paper looks like. When you say you 'photocopy', they are obviously not just put through—

Ms Neilson : Part of the process of preparing our ballot papers includes preparing proformas for just that circumstance in case everything else has not worked out and we have to get ballot papers to people. That is what happens in those circumstances.

Mr DICK: Are they photocopied and then initialled?

Ms Neilson : Yes. That comes into the accountability process. They are stamped—

Mr DICK: Sure. I had just never heard of ballot papers being photocopied before, but I understand in dire circumstances there would be those procedures put into place.

CHAIR: Given the time, I might ask you to take this on notice: as you heard at the beginning of the discussion offline with Mr Kitson, the committee is now very interested in this issue of divergence of the role and the implications of that for voters. I understand Western Australia has been leading the way in terms of closing this divergence gap. Can you give us a quick overview now and if you like to provide some more information on how that is being done here—by all accounts, successfully—we would be very grateful for that?

Ms Neilson : I am not sure we can claim success necessarily as the Electoral Commission. The Western Australian parliament changed its enrolment legislation, which fitted in more closely with Commonwealth legislation. Happily, then, from memory, over 100,000 people were able to be put on the roll, and now the divergence in Western Australia is virtually non-existent, apart from now we have some declaration envelopes that came from the 2016 election. There were still some changes in the two enrolment requirements, one of which is you need an elector's place of birth for Western Australian enrolment purposes, and that was not necessarily on the envelope or not necessarily filled out on the envelope. So that is a divergence that has come back again. But pretty much it has been brought into minor changes now in the legislation.

CHAIR: I understand that it is about the Western Australian government in terms of making the changes and Western Australian Electoral Commission. But we also understand from evidence that we have had that good will between both electoral commissions is very important and it is about that ability to work together to fix it. If you could take it on notice. We would be very interested to have a look at it as a bit of a case study as we look at recommendations that this committee will undoubtedly make on this matter for states where the divergence is still unacceptably high. We would be very interested to see the change of figures. Other things that have been raised interstate that we are having a look at it are proof of identity and the documents that are and are not acceptable to both. So if you are able to, we would be grateful to have a look at how it has changed over the last two or three federal elections and the lessons learnt from that?

Ms Neilson : Sure.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your attendance here today. I reiterate the thanks of the committee to you and your staff for the conduct of what was a very challenging federal election for us all. You have been asked to provide a reasonable amount of additional information. If you could forward that to the secretary by Friday, 2 December, we would be quite grateful for that. It has come to my attention that some of the media listening to this were having trouble listening to your opening statement. I do not know whether it is in a form that you would able to table for us as well. They were very useful facts and figures. Thank you, again, for your appearance today.

Ms Neilson : Thank you for the opportunity.